Caught in a Time Warp

The Rocky Horror Picture Show really isn't the point anymore; it's the audience response that keeps this midnight Mass going

Onscreen, the giant lips appear and begin to sing a catalogue of monster-movie references. In front of the screen, illuminated by hand-held lights from the audience, stands an incredibly thin, pale young woman -- she looks like a more spectral Winona Ryder. She begins to sing along with the lips behind her. At a certain point, she drops the long coat she's wearing. She's very nearly nude underneath. The lights cast a long, spidery shadow of her on the theater wall as she heads up the aisle, continuing the song.

The surprisingly large crowd goes nuts.

Rocky Horror carries on. It thrives, actually. When the Valley Art Theatre, longtime host of the midnight Saturday cult favorite, closed a little more than a year ago, the movie's faithful got their act together and took it on the road. They landed a few miles away at Tempe Cinemas at McClintock and Elliot, and at that cheery facility, with its easy parking and its $5 admission, they've seen their audience size soar to well over 100 people most weeks. So for the first time in more than a decade, I decided to go see how Rocky Horror was holding up.

Dragging on: The Tempe cast of Rocky Horror.
Dragging on: The Tempe cast of Rocky Horror.

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Rated R
The show plays at midnight on Saturdays at Tempe Cinemas at McClintock and Elliot in Tempe

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For the handful that may still not know: The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the movie version of Richard O'Brien's musical comedy The Rocky Horror Show, a sci-fi/gothic parody crossed with a drag revue. It's the story of a newly engaged couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who have a car breakdown in an isolated area and must pay a call to the bizarre residence of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry).

The movie bombed in its initial release in 1975, but eventually found a cult of weekly midnight followers, all over the country, who developed an audience-participation responsorial of wisecracks and silly prop-comedy gags. This evolved into a more formalized live performance, with amateurs, in full costume, acting out the film as it's unfolding on the screen behind them.

At least 50 of the casts carrying on this para-theatrical tradition met to perform last weekend at an official, Twentieth Century Fox-sponsored convention in Las Vegas, celebrating the film's 25th anniversary and its release on DVD. The gang from Tempe was among them, and was reportedly well-received.

The reason for Rocky's durability, says Valley Rocky Horror archivist and videographer Matthew Yenkala, is that it's "compatible with so many youth-oriented scenes, like glam, raver, goth, punk and drag, and theatrical crowds and gay groups."

What he doesn't say, because it needn't be said, is that the connecting link is horniness. The subculture has endured because it remains a catch-all for hormonally charged adolescent misfits, and for the hormonally charged adults they grow into. The night I attended, a just-married couple -- the bride was wearing the most beautiful wedding dress I've ever seen -- made a nostalgic pre-honeymoon visit to the theater from their reception.

Despite the carnality at the heart of the show's appeal, students of the history of Western theater may recognize in the Rocky Horror phenomenon a sped-up, mutant version of the evolution of European theater as we know it today -- the responses in the medieval Easter Mass are thought to be what led to the sanctioning of "miracle plays" during religious festivals, which in turn opened the door for secular theater. And if you attend a performance of Rocky Horror now, you may find there is nothing it so much resembles as a midnight Mass, with its high ritual and its set, precise responses that the congregation can speak without thinking.

One-liners have encrusted themselves on virtually every line of the dialogue, and some of the vintage one-liners now have wisecracking responses of their own. There are (filthy) alternative lyrics to the songs, and along with the performers who impersonate characters in the show, a secondary tier of uncostumed performers now do interactive "screen gags" -- spinning the criminologist's globe, for instance, and being knocked over when he stops it with his hand.

Further, like any strong devotional tradition, it's constantly adapting to its times. The night I attended, for instance, Brad's tire blowing out was accompanied by cries of "Oh no, Firestone!"

Yenkala, who used to play Riff Raff but who now usually stays on the sidelines with his video camera, introduced me to the assortment of computer tech support drones and high school and college kids who make up the Tempe cast. He and the "cast manager," a woman named Dawn who works as a legal secretary in the county attorney's office, are senior members of the group. The guys playing Eddie and the criminologist are in their 30s -- the latter flatly told me he's returned to the cast to work out his midlife crisis -- but most of the performers are in their late teens or early 20s. Many weren't born when the film came out in 1975; at least one, the young woman playing Magenta, was introduced to it by her father.

Indeed, it's almost a little disappointing how familial and unrebellious and mainstream Rocky Horror has become. Says Yenkala, "A lot of our younger audience members, their parents would rather have them at Rocky, because they know where they're at, they know what they're doing and what they're not doing."

"Longevity turns into respectability," Yenkala shrugs. "Five administrations."

Talk about your time warp. It's astounding. Time really is fleeting.

 
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